Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Continuing Challenge: RM, RF or Micro?

I am not cut out for producing large quantities of images. My love is for producing highly Photoshop-manipulated concept stock photos. I am guessing that eliminates me from Micro stock…so if anyone reading this has experience that would suggest otherwise, I’d love to hear from you!

I am in stock photography for the money, for the freedom and for the fulfillment of creating images that I want to create. Most of the stock photos that I make require a lot of work to think up, hours of Photoshop work to complete, and a fair amount of capital investment to produce. I know from experience that some of these images can earn just as much in RF as in RM.

I also know from research that some of the best selling Micro images can earn enough to justify putting images into that category. However, in RM I have often had the experience of having an image languish for up to three or four years before suddenly earning thousands of dollars. An image that is not a best seller can still bring in thousands of dollars. I also know that there is no way to predict whether a given image will be a best seller. It seems to me a much bigger risk to place the few images I create into a Micro market.

The image accompanying this blog, an image of the earth as a globe covered in freeways, has been up on the Corbis site for six months without a sale yet. I thought it would be a runaway best seller, or at least sell a couple of times a month. Oh well.... But I trust its time will come. The photo is an example of the kind of picture I love to create most. It’s not like a lot of other images out there. Given the right headline it can have a clear and strong message. It makes a striking visual (if I say so myself). Whether it ever sells or not, it is an image I am proud of.

A disadvantage of Rights Managed photography is that many buyers feel they cannot afford RM and limit themselves to RF or Micro. I think that is unfortunate as I can attest from my sales reports with Getty and Corbis that RM images can be had at VERY affordable prices. I have long said that with RM images you can always undercut RF! I have to admit that I also have an ego bias towards Rights Managed. I even have a hard time contributing to RF for that reason. It is about valuing my work. Of course, I have far more images in RF than RM and those images have done very well for me, particularly with Blend Images. For business reasons I think it prudent to be involved in both models.

When I hear from some of my friends about how well they are doing in Micro, it makes me anxious. With all of the buzz about micro, I keep feeling like I should be participating. And yet, every time I come close to submitting images to Micro I just can’t pull the trigger. I certainly don’t begrudge those who do choose to shoot Micro, and someday I may yet end up with images in Micro. But for now I am limiting my submissions to primarily RM with RF as a continuing hedge.


Anonymous said...

Hi John,
your top creations maybe must to stay in RM world. I think that a 150 layers Photoshop processing has a value that doesn't feet the low commission microstock system, but certainty you've got a different set of photos that could give you a "microstock satisfaction".

donfarrall said...

Hello John,

I too enjoy producing complex images that are not easily reproduced, and that show a higher level of craftsmanship. For the most part I share your perspective about microstock. While a few well produced, complex images, have earned “reasonable money” in the microstock market, they have done so because the meet the needs of a super –wide audience. It’s more about the number of buyers who need such an image, not about how unique or great the image is. Also note, that as an image becomes a best seller in microstock it is copied absolutely to death. With a world-wide base of contributors, we have lost any hope of copyright protection. You would be more likely to achieve volume sales numbers in micsrodtock with one of your animal antics images, than with a conceptual business image. The “retail” attributes of the “animal antics” images make them attractive to a huge audience. I am not suggesting that they should be in micro, instead of on paper products, just using them as an example. Take a look at the most popular files section on Istock. There you will see a list of favorite images, and they are quite good, but the sales numbers for them are not. Then look at the highest sellers. The images that sell the most are good as well, but compare the kinds of images and make your own conclusion. Also don’t underestimate the Branding effort that is behind the best sellers. Most of these will be from “top players”, people who have made a big commitment to microstock, not people who are mostly traditional stock shooters who have placed some images in the microstock marketplace. These collections are so big that search order preference is paramount, and it is not easily achieved by people who are not seriously committed to microstock. Look at he top players work, and you will not find images that cost much to produce, or take much time to create. You will find very down the middle, clean and predictable, easily useable by the masses images. Not what you do… not what I do…

Don Farrall www.donfarrall.com

Luis Santos said...

Hi! I am a big fan of your work, and it is very impressed I must say, you really do know what you are doing..! I agree with Roberto, your work is so good and powerful that should stay in RM, but I do think, like you have said, you also are in photography to earn some bucks, so you should invest in micro, with less worked pictures/concepts! This is the opinion of a very very new photographer who knows just a little..

cheers and god bless your creativity!

John Lund said...


I think, as Don Farrall points out, that without a truly committed effort I probably would not fare as well in Micro as I can in Macro stock, even with Micro type images. Oh well....



John Lund said...


Great post...a blog in itself! It sounds as if you have researched things pretty well. Are you optimistic or pessmistic about the future of stock?


John Lund said...


I think for the time being I will stick to Macro. The people i know who are doing well in Micro have committed themselves in a big way. Those who are just testing the waters don't seem to be doing as well. Probably because, as Don pointed out, you need to have that body of work that helps bring you to the front of the search....


donfarrall said...


John asked " It sounds as if you have researched things pretty well. Are you optimistic or pessmistic about the future of stock?"
The short answer is, "the low hanging fruit has been picked" and the easy revenue that used to help support the production of more expensive and risky shoots is totally gone.
This is mostly, if not all, due to microstock. There are of course other factors in play, technology changes, the migration from print to the web, and the current economic downturn. The whole country (world) is in “Reset” mode searching for the “new norm”; this is true for many, many industries, a lot of which have been hurt more than ours. I do believe there are new opportunities, but I also believe, as I think you do, that making a good living producing stock images is harder than it has ever been.

As I look ahead I see many many more people producing images for sale, feeding the bottom end of the market. I also see many fewer people producing images for the top of the market. For now, competing at the bottom doesn’t seem profitable to me. (I still shoot for clients and my energy is better spent there than selling images for a marginal return.) I have not however, given up on the top of the market, and I believe a lot of photographers have. In that regard I am feeling more positive, because I think the competition at the top is thinning out. I am also hopeful that eventually the best of microstock images will migrate up stream to compete at a higher price. I don’t mind the image competition, but I don’t care for the vast difference in price being paid for images for commercial usage. I think there is room for a better model that doesn’t give away so much. I suppose the good thing is that everything is in a state of constant change and we can be hopeful that things will shake out at some point in our favor.

OK, not such a short answer.

Don Farrall www.donfarrall.com

Anonymous said...

Hello John,

For me, your blog is always a tonic of positive energy.

I feel sharpened up for my next opportunity after I read your comments.

I too, produce intensely crafted individual images, and I have been in and out of microstock.

I think that getting mixed up in microstock is a bad idea for the professional. You will be in an uphill battle against a business model that is stacked against the individual artist making any real money.

Microstock is a long tail business (they say so themselves), and the owners make out very well by using a large, divided, powerless, transitory pool of amateur workers to supply their product.

It is not in their interest to have any particular individual do particularly well. Sure, there are some star producers, but the bulk of their sales come from the long tail.

I think that the owners have many subtle adjustments in the management of their "communities" to keep their machine running smoothly. Color me paranoid, but in some ways, I think they're run like 19th century company towns before unions.

Part of my experience with microstock was that the rejection notice of "over filtered" was used broadly and often. They may do this in order to keep clear and understandable control over a qualitative product,- and still keep their volume up.

I think that this leaves open our market niche.

When image buyers want edgy, innovative, risky, illustration, they should go to rights managed imagery, where we hang out.

And there may be a third way.

At about the same time I pulled out of microstock, I received an invitation to join a boutique stock illustration site. To me, this seems to be a whole other community, and the terms and people are agreeable (to me). Also, they seem to have a loyal repeat client base.
Its only been a few months, but I'm doing better than in microstock.

I'm calling myself an illustrator who works with photography.


Chris Gould